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November Is for Thankfulness

1 November 2022 404 views No Comment
A white woman stands behind a lectern to the right of the frame. To her left is a screen with text reading "Presidential Initiatives.' The categories on the slide are Leadership and Community Analytics.

ASA President Katherine Ensor gives the keynote address at the 2022 Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

    Katherine Ensor

    November is one of my favorite months. The weather is cooler, and I am reminded of a childhood fall when the oranges and reds were on full display. In my next to last column of my presidential year, I am taking the time for personal reflection and a heavy dose of gratitude. My close friends know Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday simply for its name—a formal day of giving thanks—and I for one have much for which to be grateful.

    Last month was packed full with ASA activities. A highlight for me was giving the keynote at the 2022 Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference in Saint Louis, Missouri. This was quickly followed by opening remarks at the inaugural International Day of Women in Statistics and Data Science, a 24-hour virtual conference featuring women from across the globe. It was a late night because I was also the keynote speaker for the virtual Sri Lanka Information Institute of Technology Conference on Advancements in Sciences and Humanities. I ended the month by sharing remarks at the ASQ/ASA Fall Technical Conference in Salt Lake City. It was a wonderful few weeks to be ASA president and witness all the many global contributions from our field.

    For the talk at the Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference, I was asked to share a bit of my journey. Conversations after my talk made me want to explore in this column how we can encourage and support each other as we journey together.

    I won’t embarrass my very close friends in the profession by calling them out by name, but I hold them in my heart and am thankful each day for their friendship. Without them, my journey would have been next to impossible and most certainly lonelier.

    Daily, I am grateful to my Rice family; thank you for your support, friendship, and leadership in our profession.

    I am also blessed with an incredible family—one that supports and cherishes the contributions we all bring to society and recognizes that the journey is as important as the destination.

    In my Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference talk, I included a slide titled, “I Was Young Once… .” The purpose was to remind all that, yes, life is a journey. I will share some key takeaways with you. In 1982, I began my doctoral studies 10 years after Title IX legislation went into effect. Title IX brought critical improvements to the fabric of US society, creating opportunities for women across the board. I was one of few women pursuing a PhD across our nation. I am happy to say this is not the case today!

    Although ecstatic about the many opportunities our young people have, I am concerned about the resurgence of overt attacks on women’s rights and the slow erosion of significant advances made over the past 50 years.

    In 1981 and 1982, I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively, in mathematics from Arkansas State University. Leaving ASU, I was exceptionally well prepared in mathematics, the foundations of statistics, and computing. There have been multiple highly successful PhD statisticians from ASU, including one of my own superstar students. Why is this important? So many of us focus on graduate student recruitment from elite universities and pass on exceptional students from state or smaller schools across our nation.

    I know many leaders and scholars whose early training was similar to mine. I was guided to Texas A&M by its exceptional statistics program, but also strongly recruited and welcomed by the chair and faculty. This support and encouragement made a difference. The willingness to support and encourage is a value shared across our profession and one we should always hold close.

    I was well-educated in statistics as a student at Texas A&M, but I also learned the importance of community. I knew I was entering a profession and building a career. The support from the faculty was amazing, especially from department chair Bill Smith, who went on to serve the ASA as its executive director; Joe Newton, who became my adviser; and Manny Parzen. Manny would regularly catch me in the hall just to check on how I was doing and engage me in fascinating conversations about statistics, its importance, and its impact.

    I was fortunate to work with Joe as my dissertation adviser, and, wow, what a fantastic decision on my part. I could not have found a better intellectual match in terms of interests and perspectives. Joe and his wife, Linda, are two of my closest friends. When I was honored with the Texas A&M College of Science Distinguished Alumni Award recently, there was secret coordination with my mother and sister, who surprised me at the ceremony. Imagine that moment and you understand how truly blessed I am.

    As statistics departments around the US are celebrating anniversaries, I note this is the 35th year of Rice statistics, and I have been there from the beginning. I showed up for work at Rice on a balmy August day in 1987. My new colleagues James R. Thompson and David W. Scott were attending JSM, and I was a bit unsure of what I was supposed to do. Not knowing where to go, I lingered in the women’s restroom trying to figure out my next step. Had I simply dreamed I had a job? That is where Diane Brown, our department’s founding office manager, found me and introduced herself. She had set up a table in the hallway because our new department office was under renovation. This is how the incredible journey began!

    Those first few years were intense. Jim, David, and I were soon joined by Marek Kimmel and Dennis Cox. The department was supported by exceptionally strong joint faculty, as well as our statistics colleagues at The University of Texas School of Public Health. In 1999, I became the fourth chair of the department and worked for the next 14 years to foster significant growth in all the dimensions strong departments require.

    I am so proud of our department and what we have collectively achieved over these 35 years. Our graduates hold leadership positions across our profession and contribute substantially to society through their strong training in statistics and commitment to community.

    I have had the opportunity to directly supervise 24 doctoral dissertations. Each of these successful and amazing individuals has gone on to make incredible contributions to our profession and society. As they know, our journey together goes beyond research and includes a strong dose of mutual friendship and mentoring.

    Last month, I was invited to the Rice George R. Brown School of Engineering awards banquet as the plus-one of host Talithia Williams, Harvey Mudd professor and PBS NOVA host, to see Kristian Lum receive the school’s young engineering award for her work on algorithmic fairness and human rights. The list of previous Rice statistics alumni recognitions is long and includes Garrett Grolemund of RStudio and Meg Ehm of GSK. The following day, I represented the ASA at the inauguration of Rice University’s eighth president, Reginald DesRoches. You may recall DesRoches was my invited speaker for JSM 2022. I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate statistics at my home!

    Throughout my journey as a professional statistician, contributing to the community through service to the ASA has been important to me. I am grateful for these many opportunities to learn about our society and science. I share these sentiments in hopes they also resonate with you wherever you find yourself on your journey. Happy Thanksgiving!

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